I love to hear people talk about the dishes that their grandmothers used to make when they were growing up. When folks tell me about the memories associated with great meals gone by, I can tell that it isn’t necessarily the food itself that they miss, it’s the experiences, the family, and the companionship that was brought on by the simple act of sharing a meal.
So it pains me to hear how many culinary traditions have passed into the ether along with the matriarch of the family, how the recipes and techniques have been lost to time only to live in the memories of the people who have direct recollections of these meals.
My wife and I are blessed then to live with a genuine culinary historian, even though when grandmom reads this, she will scoff at that moniker! She grew up on a farm in Malaga during the 1920’s and learned to cook from her mother (who was from the Ukraine), and has carried on the traditions of her heritage through the meals that she still prepares to this day.
Grandmom has a book that she keeps in the dining room bureau with all of her recipes in it, although anyone who has cooked with a grandmother knows that the recipes are just a guide, an idea of what the ingredients are and how they fall into place to become something so yummy. This is the case with her pierogies, the traditional stuffed pasta of eastern European cultures. Jill and I recently asked grandmom to make her pierogis with us, so that we can learn from the source of how to make her signature dish.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I, Jill, my mother-in-law, and grandmom met in the kitchen to get started on making a big batch of pierogies. The first step was to make the dough. Grandmom went right to town, scooping the flour into a bowl and measuring with her eyes. Jill immediately protested! The whole point was to learn how to make the pierogis, to measure the immeasurable!
Jill began to measure out the ingredients; flour, eggs, and water. Grandmom began to knead the dough, and slowly but surely massed the ingredients into a pliable dough. Jill continued to take notes, scribbling down the measurements and mixing times all while taking pictures.
The dough was set aside to rest, and we began to work on the various fillings. The traditional fillings are potato and cheese, and grandmom got working on the potato filling first. She steadily pared the skins off of a bag of potatoes, cut them into rough chunks and placed them into water. The water was brought to a boil, and the potatoes were cooked until tender but not mushy. They were then drained and set aside.
Several onions were then diced and cooked in butter in one of the old cast iron pans that hang out in the kitchen until the onions were translucent. They were supposed to get enough heat to soften them, but not enough to make them crispy. While the onions slowly cooked, the cheese filling was prepared.
Farmers cheese must be used to make the cheese filling, it provides a good balance of firmness, flavor and price! The cheese is first drained to remove excess water, and is then mixed with a little flour, an egg or two (depending on the size batch), salt, pepper and parsley. By the time the cheese filling was completed, the onions were cooked and the potato filling was ready to mix.
The potatoes were mashed with an egg, some reserved farmers cheese, the onions, and were seasoned with salt, pepper the chopped parsley. Once grandmom was content with the taste and consistency of the fillings, it was time to roll out the dough and make some pierogies!
The trusty old pasta machine was taken out of the pantry and set up on the kitchen table. Flour was put into a bowl and sheet pans were lined with a dusting of flour, waiting to be loaded up with fresh pierogies. The dough was then taken from its resting place, and we began to roll it through the pasta machine.
Short chunks of dough were run through the rollers of the hand-cranked machine, and were quickly transformed into long thin strips. An assembly line was made; one person rolled and cut, while the other two filled and crimped. The three generations of women expertly made the pierogies, lining them up one after another on the sheet pans until several pans were full.
I had put several large pots of water on the stove and when they came up to a boil, I added some salt, and the pierogies were gently slid in the hot water. After a few minutes, they floated to the surface and I volunteered to test the first one to see if it was done! With a small dollop of sour cream to top, I tasted the first pierogi. The dough was tender and the filings were delicious. We even made a few blueberry pierogies, which we’d never done before. They came out well, although we’ll have to try them out a few more times to get the filling right.
It was such a great experience learning how to make a food that has been passed down though so many generations. Writing this article made me wistful that I didn’t get the opportunity to learn how to make my grandma Cunningham’s chicken and dumplings though. I was too young at the time and lived too far away from her, although I do remember eating it almost every time we went to my grandmother’s house.
If you’ve got elder relatives around and they’re holding onto some amazing culinary traditions, take this opportunity to learn from them before the recipes are lost to the ages. You and your relatives will find it to be well worth it.